A Beginner's Guide To Acting English

by Shappi Khorsandi

There really ought to be some sort of adage about this, but really you shouldn't judge the contents of a book by the design on the front alone.

The publishers of stand-up Shappi Khorsandi's autobiographical first book have clearly designated it as 'chick lit' - as if a woman were incapable of any other sort of writing - and given it a hideous cover of patronisingly friendly typography and cute silhouette of a family skipping gaily from house to house.

Well, if they are on the move it's because they are seeking a safe house after being targeted by the Ayatollah’s state-sponsored terrorists, which isn’t your typical chick lit plot point.

These are Shappi’s genuine schoolgirl memoirs. At the age of five, her family moved voluntarily from Iran to London – but after the 1979 revolution found they couldn’t go back. The reason is down to her father, or ‘Baba’, a satirist and poet. Hadi Khorsdandi was no fan of the Shah  – but the uprising delivered a regime far more intolerant of a secular mischief-maker.

The political upheavals at home, and the personal journey of trying to settle into a foreign land, are thus seen through a child’s naïve eyes – which turns out to be the best way of exposing the ridiculous, murderous irrationalities of politics and power. Why, young Shaparak asks time and again, would anyone want to kill her beloved Baba; the gregarious man who was the life and soul of any gathering?

For much of the time, the turmoil in Iran that she cannot understand doesn’t affect her young life, as – like any child – she’s more concerned about fitting in at school than anything else, which isn’t always easy when your parents are sticking to their Middle Eastern ways.

There’s an underplayed comedy of manners going on here, even if many of her childhood concerns will resonate with people from any background: fretting about her role in her school play, exploring the wilds beyond her suburban back garden or describing the noisy gatherings of strangers in her hospitable home. There are, however, some notable differences – playing not Cowboys and Indians, for instance, but Iranians and Iraqis.

These episodes are as warmly witty and as effortlessly charming and Khorsandi’s stage act, as are the evocative flashback moments when she takes us to the simpler life in Iran. But, again like her stand-up, there’s often something serious lurking beneath the sweet-natured exterior.

But amid the everyday tales lie some horrific stories. Of being called a ‘Paki’ on the Tube, of the black day her uncle Masood was shot dead by the Shah’s thuggish supporters, of the mob that gathered for Hadi’s blood when he briefly returned to post-revolutionary Tehran.

Yet even in the dark times, Khorsandi retains a typical lightness of touch. Although occasionally terrified, the dominant atmosphere is one of joy – and of an immensely close and compassionate family. This book stands as a warm, heartfelt tribute to them without being swamped by cloying emotion. Although, like any father, Hadi could blow his top, he is clearly an inspirational figure to anyone who encounters him; and that includes his daughter.

If this is ever made into a movie, the portentous voiceover will no doubt intone some guff about: ‘In a time of conflict, only a family’s love can defy the Ayatollah,’ but even if that is the bottom line, the book is a lot more subtle, funny, delightful and engrossing than that, for page after page.

Iranians may primarily know her as Hadi’s daughter – but with a debut book as assured as this, plus a burgeoning stand-up career, it surely won’t be long before they are referring to him as Shappi’s father.

Review by: Steve Bennett

Published: 2 Jul 2009

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